Iron Man – Trey Anastasio and the PSO 2/12/14
Valentine’s Day is usually a pretty mellow affair for me but Trey Anastasio was determined to make Valentine’s Day 2012 a night to remember. I’ve been a Phish fan for years (need evidence? Google my pen name) and when the Trey Anastasio Winter tour was announced I jumped at a chance to see Trey in Pittsburgh. I was ecstatic! I would have something to look forward to on Valentine’s Day, I would be able to finally go the Orchestra, and I would be able to see my favorite Phish songs even when Phish wasn’t touring.
I was especially determined to catch Trey in Pittsburgh because I hadn’t been to a Phish show since I snagged tickets to their reunion in Hampton and the three opportunities I had to see shows in the intervening years had never worked out between school, robotic competitions, or moving to a completely different state the day of the show. In short, I had gone far too long without seeing a You Enjoy Myself or hearing Trey shred. The concert also gave me a reason to revisit the band since I didn’t listen to Phish as often as I did back in high school but I could still effortlessly recall and hum the instrumental portion of Reba or sing the entirety of lyrics of Train Song. I still loved Phish, I still wanted to experience the rush I got when I listened to my old CD’s I had of live shows, and as I fell more and more in love with the songs I hadn’t listened to for years, I knew I had no choice but to buy a ticket for my roommate Andy, my brother, and me and then counted down the days until Valentine’s Day. I had a date with Trey and I couldn’t wait!
A couple weeks before the concert, my brother decided that he couldn’t come to the concert because he was overwhelmed with work and had a class scheduled during the show that he could not afford to miss. I didn’t want to waste a ticket to the sold-out show so my roommate and I asked around campus if anyone know Phish or Trey but mostly received “huh?” looks or, in one instance, a text to tell my roommate that he was “misspelling fish” on his twitter in response to our queries. I guess a small Catholic college doesn’t have a whole lot of fans that enjoy improvisational rock music. Huh, go figure. I finally succeeded in convincing my friend Tom to pay for the ticket, even though he had no idea what the music of Phish was outside my quick description of “they’re like the Dead but not really,” and the three of us, Andy, Tom, and I, headed up to Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh.
As we stood in line waiting for the doors to open, I started to brief Tom on why there were so many people with dreadlocks in suits, why this concert was so special, and guessed what some of the songs were. “Yes, those were called Phans. Yup, this was the first time Trey had gone on a tour where he did shows with a orchestra. Well, he had previously played with the NY Philharmonic but it wasn’t a true tour. Uhuh, I thought that Trey would play a lot of the longer, more complex Phish songs with a few ballads. Boy, oh boy, Tom, you are in for a heck of a show!” As I talked, I began to get more and more excited about the upcoming events of the night. Here I was in a suit and tie, waiting to get into see the guitarist from Phish, a band known by the media for its fan’s drug habits, play with a nationally renown orchestra. It sounded like a joke. It was unreal!
The doors opened, I snagged a poster and the three of us explored the Heinz Hall. I was awestruck by the towering ceilings, gold leaf, and gigantic marble columns of the Hall and by the masses of people milling around the ornate lobby, listening to the blue grass band, asking each other if “anyone was going to get engaged at this show,” and girls sipping drinks while pushing back their knee-length hair from their eyes. The ridiculousness of the night couldn’t have been clearer than the fan in the flannel pattern full suit who was leaning against a carved marble statue as he tossed back a bottle of Rolling Rock. I was going to see Trey Anastasio play Phish songs with an orchestra backing him up! I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer and I bounded up the stairs as Andy and Tom followed me to our balcony seats.
As I sat in the plush seats of the theater and listened to the trumpet players practice the riffs of “Stash,” I could hear the buzz of conversation between fans get more and more excited. No one around me could believe how nicely everyone was dressed or the beautiful decorations of the theater or the presence of the thirty something classically trained musicians primed and ready to play music that was usually heard in beer-soaked, sticky-floored concert halls. I kept looking around to stare at the impeccably dressed fans while sneaking a glance towards the wings in case I spotted a glimpse of a red shock of hair and big smile. Then, I saw Trey, dressed in a snappy black suit with a goofy grin plastered on his face, and the whole audience shot out of their seats and applauded, screamed, and cheered in a deafening roar. Two standing ovations later, Trey sheepishly waved at the crowd, picked up his guitar, and counted down until the violinists drew their bows across their strings and started “First Tube.”
The addition of strings instead of Mike Gordon’s hard charging bass line dramatically emphasized that this show would be very different from any Phish show any fans had ever seen. The strings flitted between Trey’s guitar, swapping between simply providing a rhythm to his guitar of imitating or vamping the signature riff of the song. Trey was happy to trade some of the “Trey parts” of the song to be played by the orchestra and took a unique role of both guiding the progression of the song and dialing back his lead to play off of different sections of the orchestra. Trey made it clear that he wouldn’t merely be Trey Anastasio with backing band, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but that the concert would feature a complete synthesis of Phish songs to be played in a classical setting by the orchestra. Simply, the orchestra would be equally as important as Trey as both exchanged parts, complimented each other, and even participated in call-and-response between Trey and different sections of the orchestra. Even more evident was how much the presence of a full orchestra effected songs that I knew by heart. I was absolutely stunned at how beautiful “First Tube” was. Yes, the very same “First Tube” that causes fans to stomp and flail to Mike Gordon’s driving bass was light, sophisticated, and pretty.
Trey immediately strummed the first chords of “Water in the Sky” as the strings sighed behind him. I’ve always had a soft spot for Phish’s soft ballads and I was pleased to hear “Water in the Sky” in a setting such as Heinz Hall. Trey’s unmicrophoned voice sounded sincere and very sweet all alone in the vast theater while the strings rose and fell to the bright tone of his acoustic guitar. It was obvious that the orchestra could change a song’s tone such as transforming “First Tube” from the vicious, assault of Phish’s version into a breezy orchestral piece or provide serene backdrop to emphasize the simple beauty of a ballad such as “Water in the Sky” but I wondered what kind of power the orchestra could give to a traditional rendition of a more complex Phish song. Minutes later, I got an answer to my question in the form of “Divided Sky.”
As soon as the strings provided the stabbing peak after Trey’s initial chords of “Divided Sky,” the room seemed to hold its breath. Trey’s voice seemed to echo back “Divided Sky the wind blows high” in hundreds of whispers from all around me as the audience sat entranced by the soaring strings of the orchestra. I felt myself relax and drift into a daydream as the orchestra masterfully navigated the palindrome section of the song and Trey’s acoustic rang out intermittently. Once again, I was surprised by how much of the song Trey was willing to give the orchestra to play as he merely supported them with his acoustic. “Divided Sky” has always been one of my favorite songs by Phish but the serene bliss and utter beauty of the fading notes before the silent part of the song until Trey re-entered the song with his acoustic, caught my breath in my throat. The sight of hearing forty strings plucked at the same time right before the song entered the 10-minute mark was incredible but not nearly as incredible as the explosion of cheering at the end of the song.
During each and every song of the night fans were on their absolute best concert behavior. While the music was being played there was hardly a word spoken which allowed the acoustics of Heinz Hall to amplify every instrument as every note floated and hung in the air of the hall. The audience was so silent that I closed my eyes and I could easily pretend I was listening to the concert in private; there wasn’t a single noise or voice because everyone was concentrating on the noise emanating from the gigantic wood stage. However, after every song the silence was shattered by the built up excitement and cheering that was being barely restrained by each fan and in the instant after a song ended, cheering and clapping seemed to burst out of the audience in a gigantic rush. I was impressed by the good behavior of fans as they showed basic respect for the venue and musicians and was equally as pleased by their enthusiasm. I loved that the audience had the behavior of a composed, dignified classical music audience while retaining the wild, gushing adoration of a typical Phish concert. It was fairly comical to see the musicians calmly put down their instruments only to jump seconds later as it seemed like a bomb was set off in the audience when everyone leapt to their feet simultaneously, cheering and yelling. As fans spontaneously cheered, I saw the first chair violinist jump, startled, by the noise that erupted after the last notes of “Divided Sky.” Hidden by the stereotypically classical music audience attire of suits, prim dresses, and jewelry was the passionate heart and barely restrained joy of a typical Phish audience
Trey wasted no time before starting “Brian and Robert” and the string section gradually appeared behind his softly strummed acoustic guitar. The trembling voice of Trey in the completely silent, enrapt hall gave a delicate beauty to his simple ballad. Trey’s guitar playing was particularly concise and understated, emphasizing the strings as they complimented his voice. The couple next to me softly whispered the song to each other as Trey sang and I kept thinking to myself, “This is too pretty, too beautiful. It has to be a dream.” The rest of the concert was divided between two styles of music as represented by “Divided Sky” and “Brian and Robert:” Trey and the orchestra either played intricate orchestral pieces or gorgeous, string laden ballads. The next song, “Goodbye Head,” had a cinematic flair to it as horns blew the piece into the big blue sky, Trey nailed his first electric guitar solo, and the orchestra ebbed and flowed along before taking on an ominous tone with marching drums and blaring horns as it descended into the last part of the song. Obviously, the orchestra could conjure up a little bit of dark energy as well as ethereal beauty and with that thought fresh in my mind, I only had to hear the opening chords of “My Friend, My Friend” leading into “Guyute” to start giddily bouncing up and down in my seat.
The orchestra did a fantastic job to lend a grandiosity to Trey’s instrumental tale of a wicked pig. There were timpani! There were French horns! There were trumpets! The song had the whole deal! Trey and the orchestra created an atmosphere of tranquility during the calmer parts of the song and an evil fury during the instrumental part describing Guyute’s dance. As the violinist’s bows slashed their strings while the drums beat with each guitar riff and flute tootle, there was an unconscious cheer from the lips of fans, including me. The energy of the song was positively palpable and Trey and some members of the orchestra had huge grins on their face signaling that they, too, could feel the electricity of the music
. I bounced up and down in my seat and spied the xylophonist bobbing his head along as he swayed to the beat and swung the mallets in rhythm; “Guyute” was so good that some of the musicians started dancing along! As the music swirled in the evil maelstrom summoned by the orchestra, the image of Trey as the demon in Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” stuck in my mind and I imagined imps and blue satyrs sidling out of the music as they grinned and mimiced the nasty jig of Guyute. By the time the song was done and the orchestra and Trey had taken a bow to an ear-splitting standing ovation, my friends were grinning at me and mouthing “wow.” Even Tom, the first-time Phish and Trey concert goer, told me that he couldn’t believe how good the show was.
After everyone had sat down, the orchestra’s strings hummed and Trey lightly strummed the chords to “Let Me Lie” and lead the crowd in a hushed sing- a-long. As with every ballad that night, “Let Me Lie” was dazzlingly pretty. The show’s formula of “complex song/ballad/complex song” continued as Trey lead the orchestra in a scorching rendition of “Stash.” The opening riff drew a huge responsive from the audience and elicited ecstatic cries from some fans. The audience really enjoyed the energy of the orchestral rendition of “Stash” and even contributed “Stash’s” staccato handclaps during the appropriate parts of the instrumental section of the song. The first time the handclaps appeared, seemingly spontaneously, from the audience, a couple musicians were startled but by the third handclap the whole orchestra was smiling, anticipating each clap, and feeding on the energy of the fans.
“Stash” was the highlight of the first set by far and there was a noticeable smile on the xylophonist as he laughed and got into the song. By the end of the song, the orchestra and fans were sharing a goofy smile. The first set ended and everyone knew something special had just happened. I kept seeing broad smiles and excited hand motions as fans tried to visually illustrate the swooping strings of the violins or the blaring trumpets. Since the show had followed the exact set list of Trey’s show with the Atlanta Symphony, the whole room was abuzz with excited chatter about the song that would be played after the intermission, “Time Turns Elastic.” My group scrabbled back to our seats just as soon as the lights were dimming and the orchestra had picked up their instruments. The tolling bells at the beginning of “Time Turns Elastic” indicated that the highlight of the second set had begun.
I admit that I’ve never been as big a fan of “Time Turns Elastic” as I am about Trey’s other compositions. However, after hearing the rendition done by Trey and the orchestra, I believe that I am not as crazy about the song for the sole reason that Phish’s version of “Time Turns Elastic” is a modified and inferior version of the song. The members of Phish are all remarkable musicians but even their skills can’t do justice to the majesty and nuanced beauty of “Time Turns Elastic.” No, only a full opera can produce the true form of “Time Turns Elastic” and I was left mouth agape as Trey and the PSO played “Time Turn Elastic” the way it was meant to be. The added layers of sound of each and every section of the orchestra provided a lush, flowing backdrop to Trey’s guitar licks and the horn section bounced merrily, cymbals shivered, and the string section wept, quivered, and floated behind it all. For the thirty minutes the song went on, I forgot I was seeing a song by a rock musician interpreted by an orchestra and realized that I was seeing an orchestral song that just happened to be composed by a rock musician; “Time Turns Elastic” was so subtle, incredibly complex, and fluid as it moved from each movement to the next that it only felt natural that it should be played by an orchestra. The thirty-minute song flew by and after the applause had died down, Tom turned to me and asked, “Was that in a movie? Was that Phish? Really?” His comment was a fantastic expression of the grandeur, graceful beauty, and astonishing sophistication of “Time Turns Elastic;” it was so complex, was both familiar and original, and grand that it appeared to be a movie score or a forgotten classical work of art. I’d say that my ticket was worth it just to see “Time Turns Elastic” played live with an orchestra.
After the excitement of “Time Turns Elastic,” Trey played the magnificent “If I Could,” which is one of my very favorite Phish songs. Once again, the already beautiful song became divine with the addition of a full string section and an outstanding harp solo. I was so happy and at peace that I found myself drifting away during the song while mouthing the lyrics to myself and closed my eyes to soak in the music. “If I Could” was my favorite ballad of the night and, really, after that song I can’t blame the couple who decided to get engaged during the song in Atlanta. It’s like something out of a love story; I could easily picture a fading sunset and pastel-hued sky as my heart leapt into my throat as Trey sung. The orchestra’s version of “If I Could” is the type of song that I imagine would be played in the magic moment as two people in love promised their hearts to each other; it was that spectacular. After the last note had faded and the entire audience exhaled, the ascending and descending notes of “You Enjoy Myself” appeared to jubilant cries from the audience.
YEM was pure electricity. As I watched Trey’s grin grow wider and wider with each audition of a section of the orchestra, I smiled, too. I knew I was seeing a dream come true for Trey and I couldn’t contain my own happiness for the realization of his dream to have world renown musicians play his music. Trey’s childish grin made it apparent just how much he adored playing with an orchestra and how much he enjoyed the satisfaction apparent in the musician’s faces. They were tapping along, smiling, and were in just as much awe of the magical evening as the audience was. The drumroll for the Boy/Man/God/Shit portion of the song drew spontaneous cheers from members of the audience who couldn’t contain their own joy and laughs when Trey dissolved the peak at the end of the drum roll and started a slow, flowing jam into the “Firenze” chorus. As the final section approached, Trey very carefully and with an almost comically delicate touch laid his guitar back on its stand and stood, swaying with a blissful, completely at peace smile plastered on his face, as he faced the masses of faces staring back at him. During the vocal jam section of the song, Trey had the orchestra swirl in a circular riff while he paralleled their ebb and flow with an absolutely gorgeous and serene wordless singing. In a show filled with exquisite beauty, his vocal jam may have been the prettiest moment of the entire concert. After Trey had indicated that he was done, the audience exploded into applause and Trey left the stage to a thunderous standing ovation.
Since I had seen the set list for Atlanta, I knew that the encore of the Beatles’ Abbey Road suite was next and was wide-eyed with excitement and anticipation to see one of the most hallowed pop/orchestra pieces played by a full orchestra. When Trey did finally come back and out and the orchestra sped through “Golden Slumbers>Carry That Weight >The End,” I could have closed my eyes and sworn that I was listening to the actual recording of Abbey Road because it was so close to the recording. Any Beatles’ loving music fan would jump on the opportunity to have an orchestra play the Abbey Road suite and I just knew that Trey was smiling along to the drum solo played by a classically trained percussionist because he had done what every other music fan had always dreamed of doing. I was once again struck by the bizarre and wonderful event going on in front of me and by the time Trey finished a very pretty “Inlaw Josie Wales,” I was smiling ear to ear.
All three of us, Tom, Andy, and I, walked out of the concert hall in a stupor. I was overjoyed by how good the show was, the chance to see songs that I loved played in new ways, and the opportunity to see one of my favorite artists in a elegant venue. I thought the concert was phenomenal but I knew I was a little biased and, therefore, I was interested to see what Tom and Andy, who didn’t really know Phish that well, thought of the concert. They both gave enthusiastic praise for the Trey and the PSO. Tom even asked if I could give him a couple Phish shows so he could listen to more of their music. We unanimously agreed that it was the best Valentine’s Day any of us had experienced. Andy even succeeded in selling one of his extra posters to a fan, so it may have been the most profitable Valentine’s Day, as well! While the show wasn’t the wild, dance-filled, festival of a normal Phish show, the sheer beauty and chance to hear familiar songs done in a completely different fashion made my date with Trey and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra a concert and Valentine’s I will always remember.
I was lucky enough to find a recording of the first set up to Guyute and embedded it in the link below!